Top trainer Julie Goodnight helps you analyze your riding posture and prepare you for the perfect canter. Find out how rider errors contribute to wrong leads and more.
By Julie Goodnight with Heidi Melocco
PHOTOS BY HEIDI MELOCCO
Cantering is the topic of choice at many of my clinics. Riders want to know how to ride the complex gait with confidence and what they can do to canter more easily. I often hear “my horse will never pick up the right lead,” “what can I do to stop this horrible fast trot that comes before my horse will canter,” and “my horse won’t keep cantering once we get the gait.” These are my top three cantering complaints and the easiest problems to fix—with a little bit of rider awareness, a new plan to make cantering cues clear, and an attitude shift to help riders know that they are in charge and can expect their horses to do what was asked.
When a horse is well trained and has cantered many miles in the past, I believe that ninety-nine percent of canter concerns are rider induced—there’s always something the rider can do to make their ride better and to help their horse know exactly what they expect. Here, I’ll help you understand how your body position, tension and timing may be telling your horse something different than you think. You’ll have the tips and tools you need to step into the canter with a clear cue and knowing that you’re sequencing your cues so that your horse can easily understand your requests.
Why does the lead matter? It’s difficult for the horse to balance himself if you ride around a corner. If your horse is following your exact cue, he should take the lead that you ask for—not just start cantering and choose a lead himself. Plus, for competition, there’s often a required lead depending on the direction you’re tracking or according to the pattern. All that said, if you’re riding straight down the trail or the middle of the arena, there is no correct lead to take. But to be a better horseman, it’s best to know what you’re asking your horse to do.
When riders come to clinics and they want to work on leads, I first ask if the horse takes the wrong lead when traveling both directions. If the horse misses his leads in both directions, there’s most likely a cueing problem. The horse isn’t clear about what lead you want him to take and he isn’t set up to take the correct lead.
What goes wrong with a cue? Many riders can’t state what they do to cue for the canter. Because you have to cue for a specific gait and cue for a lead, there are lots of variations in cues and there’s lots of confusion.
The horse pushes off into the canter with the outside hind leg. If you’re asking for the right lead, the horse first pushes off with the left hind (and vice versa).
Use your outside leg to reach back a few inches and apply pulsating pressure there with your Achilles tendon. To prep for a right lead, move your left leg back. A well-trained horse will step his hips to the right. This movement is done at the walk or while standing still. I practice this move at the walk in a relaxed and easy frame without thinking about adding speed. You need to be able to reach back and get the horse to yield his haunches. That needs to be a cue to move the haunches and not just a cue to speed up. I like to walk straight down the long side of the arena, reach back, if the horse yields his hip, release him and pet him. Do that over and over until the horse knows that the cue to move his hip. Once your horse can proceed with a canter cue. The horse is now set up for the correct lead. That’s called “haunches in.”
For me, the canter cue is outside leg to move the haunches in, then I lift up and inward with the inside rein to keep the horse from diving in, then the actual cue to canter comes when I curl my hips in the canter motion (which is a move like pushing a swing.) I also like to use a kissing sound. It’s all about the sequence—outside leg, inside rein, push with the seat and kiss. I would guess that 80 percent of people who think their horse has a lead problem find that the problem goes away once they clarify their cueing sequence.
Caption: Practice “haunches in” at the walk and trot so that you know you can control your horse’s hips before adding speed and cueing for the lead at the same time.
If your horse is still having trouble with leads after working on “haunches in,” try cueing your horse right before the turn to the short side of the arena. Make sure to cue before the turn and not during the turn. If your horse enters the turn, he’ll actually turn his hips to the outside and he may take the wrong lead as his hips pop out. This is why circling isn’t a great way to teach a horse to pick up a lead. As you pull your horse into the circle, the horse pulls his hip to the outside, he can’t pick up the correct lead, but if you’re going straight then just start to turn, he’s still moving correctly at that moment.
Caption: Cue your horse for the canter just before you turn to help him place his hips correctly to pick up the correct lead.
If the horse will only take one lead, there’s a chance that there’s a physical issue. This is true especially if your horse usually takes the correct lead and suddenly isn’t so willing. If that’s the case, I want to rule out physical issues and have the horse evaluated by a veterinarian or veterinarian who’s also an equine chiropractor. If it’s an old injury, especially on a hind leg, the horse may have learned to compensate and just isn’t as strong when traveling to one direction.
Trotting into the Canter
Cueing can be the culprit again. If you release the horse from the cue at the wrong time, the horse will learn to do whatever he was doing when he got the release. I typically see two types of horses who become afraid of the canter. If the horse becomes afraid to canter, the rider may be reluctant. The rider picks up on the reins or pulls back at the moment of cueing. Even if the rider is reluctant in their mind, the horse may pick up on that.
Other times it is a cueing issue. If you think you’re cueing for the horse to canter and instead he just trots faster and faster and faster, you’re probably releasing the cue at the wrong time. Compliant and trained horses can learn to take the cue to canter as a cue to trot faster. If the horse mistakes the cue and you start riding a fast trot—by posting or by sitting the trot—you are condoning the trot and telling the horse that he’s doing the right thing. Or, the rider stops the horse because he trotted instead of cantered. Once the horse gets a break, he thinks he’s been rewarded and he did the right thing. The horse doesn’t want to canter, he wants to work as little as possible.
If the horse mistakes your cue, make sure that you have a clear cue. If you’re confident of your cue sequence and your horse still trots faster, let him know that isn’t what you’re asking for. Stop him abruptly and immediately recue him for the canter. If he does it again, abruptly slow him down with a stop cue using your seat and reins then immediately ask again. Make sure not to give him a break and keep applying the pressure of the whole cueing process until he gives you the right answer and starts to canter. This is the same training sequence you’d use if you want to alleviate the trot or even a step taken before the horse begins to canter—to teach the stop to canter or walk to canter.
Caption: This young horse had not cantered often and thought a cue to speed up meant to trot more. Notice that I am sitting deeply and not posting with the trot. Soon, he understood and picked up the canter
Note that when the horse began to canter, my hands are forward and low, in front of the saddle horn. This position lets him know that rein pressure won’t mean too much pressure on his mouth when his head moves down into the canter.
Make sure to praise your horse when he picks up on your new, more precise cues.
Avoiding the canter: The horse’s nose dives down with every stride of the canter as he’s lifting his back and hindquarters and stretches his nose down. This happens especially on the first stride when he moves from no impulsion to full impulsion. If you as a rider don’t actively give a release with your reins, with each stride and at the beginning, the horse hits the bit. If you’re even just tense and don’t relax your hands to help the horse get a release of the reins, you can be adding to the problem. If your horse has a lazy demeanor and hits the bit, he takes that as full permission to stop cantering. If your horse is sensitive and nervous, he may hit that bit and get scared and therefore lose trust in you as a rider.
Whether it’s because of a cueing problem or because the horse has felt the bit in his mouth, the answer is the same. As soon as you step into the canter and with every stride of the gait, you need to reach forward and down (not up, that can still hit the horse in the mouth as your horse’s head goes down). If your horse is reluctant to canter –they actually become afraid to canter and throw their heads in the air and run in a panic. When I’m attempting to break that habit, I over exaggerate and reach farther forward than necessary to show the horse that he can trust me.
If you don’t think you can make an exaggerated change to break this habit with your horse, consider asking a more experienced rider work with your horse to show you how the canter can look and to remind the horse that stepping into the canter doesn’t have to mean getting hit in the mouth. You’ll still have to make an exaggerated change when you’re back in the saddle because he knows the difference between riders. You’ll have to focus on fixing yourself, but you’ll get a boost of confidence to see someone else riding your horse and knowing what your horse can do.
Trotting into the canter can also be a problem if you haven’t cantered your horse for a long period of time. If you haven’t cantered recently, your horse might think that your go faster cue just means trot and trot faster. It will take your horse a few times to understand what you’re asking for and it’s important to cue your horse with precision.
Once you’re already cantering, it’s the horse’s job to keep doing what you asked for until you tell him to do something different. He should keep cantering and not choose to slow down on his own. However, horses don’t necessarily want to canter around and carry a rider –it’s hard work! Some horses will look for any mistake by the rider and use it as an excuse to stop.
Horse Tip Daily #75 – Julie Goodnight, clinician, trainer and host of the RFD-TV show “Horse Master with Julie Goodnight” is back to speak to us about dealing with the Off the Track Thoroughbred.
Question: Dear Julie,
Please explain to me the rein aids for English and Western. I would like to know which ones to use for each discipline and what is the difference. For example, direct and direct opposition, indirect and indirect opposition? And how do you use these in riding?
Answer: Hi Elizabeth,
Thanks for the excellent questions. I find this is an area that is vaguely understood, at best, by the average horse person. First of all, as far as the difference in the rein aids between English and Western, to me there are none. The rein aids work the same and the horse responds the same way no matter what style of saddle you ride in. Some might argue that the neck rein is strictly Western, but I like my English horses to know the neck rein too and it is imperative for sports like polo (which may be considered an English discipline, since it is done in an English saddle but with one hand on the reins). All of the other rein aids, direct, leading/opening and indirect are definitely used both English and Western. I cover all of these aids in my #5 Goodnight’s Principles of Riding DVD if you’d like to see all in action. Here’s the written description…
The term “rein aid” refers simply to how the rider moves her hand and the direction of pull on the horse’s mouth (up, back, sideways). The term “rein of opposition” is sort of an old-fashioned term and is most often used with the term “direct rein,” as in “direct rein of opposition.” Opposition refers to the forward motion of the horse and whenever you pull back on a rein, you are pulling in opposition to the horse’s forward movement. Therefore, it tends to slow the horse down.
For the direct rein, the rider’s hand moves from the regular hand position (in front of the pommel, straight line from rider’s elbow to the corrner of the horse’s mouth), directly toward the rider’s hip. There is a backward (and slightly upward) pull on the rein and therefore it is a rein of opposition.
An opening rein or leading rein is when the rider moves her forearm to the side and not back and therefore it does not inhibit forward motion. This rein aid is often used as a training rein aid, such as when you are first teaching colts to turn or when you are teaching a horse to spin or turn on the haunches or do lateral movements. It is a leading rein when it is the inside rein (you are opening the rein on the same side as you want the horse to turn). It is an opening rein when you are using it as the outside rein, when the horse is bending away from the opening rein, but you want to move the horse’s shoulder or barrel out (like opening up a circle or leg yielding/two tracking).
There are two indirect rein aids: the “indirect rein in front of the withers” and the “indirect rein behind the withers.” The latter is a rein of opposition and the former is not. The indirect rein in front of the withers is a lift up and in on the rein toward the horse’s neck (an upward diagonal pull on the rein; from the normal hand position, just turn your pinkie toward the horse’s withers without pulling back; the inside rein comes across the horse’s neck in front of the withers). The indirect rein in front of the withers moves the horse’s shoulder in the opposite direction, while the nose stays bent in the direction of the turn.
The indirect rein behind the withers has some opposition or backward pull, and causes the horse to move his hip away from the rein hand while the horse stays bent toward the rein hand, such as in a turn on the forhand or disengagement of the hindquarters. The direction of pull on the rein is up and back toward the rider’s opposite shoulder, in a motion like crossing your heart (the inside rein comes across the horse’s neck behind the withers).
Some important caveats for all rein aids: it is not the amount of pull or contact that causes a reaction in the horse, but the direction of the pressure on the horse’s mouth or the movement of the rider’s hand (when using the indirect rein aids especially- it is only effective when there is little or no pressure on the horse’s mouth). Also, when riding two-handed (as all of the above rein aids require) your hand should never cross the horse’s withers. If it does, the rein aid you are using is ineffective and may be interfering with the horse’s motion (pulling his nose in the wrong direction). All rein aids are supported by leg aids (but that is a whole other subject).
The neck rein is typically used for one-handed riding, but may be used two-handed in combination with another rein aid. For example, when you are teaching a young horse to neck rein, you may use the neck rein as the outside rein aid and the leading rein on the inside to help control the horse’s nose. Eventually, the horse associates the neck rein with turning his neck and nose away from the rein and you no longer need the leading rein.
Like the indirect rein, the neck rein may be used in opposition or not. The basic neck rein is a gentle touch of the rein against the side of the horse’s neck well in front of the withers and has no opposition. The horse is trained to move away from the touch of the rein on his neck and he moves his nose and neck away from the neck rein. If there is a hard pull or the rider’s hand crosses too far over the midline of the horse’s neck, it will inhibit the horse’s movement and turn his nose the wrong way.
The neck rein with opposition (a slight backward pull with the application of the neck rein) is called the “bearing rein” and may be used to turn the horse back on his haunches, such as in a roll back or a pivot on the haunches.
This is a lot of information about how to use the reins effectively and it takes a lot of time and experience before the rider is able to use the rein aids so explicitly and effectively. And it never ceases to amaze me how responsive a horse can be to the lightest amount of pressure and the slightest movement of your hand. One really important thing I have learned through the years about rein aids is that the slower you move your hands, the better the horse will respond.
Julie Goodnight, Clinician and Trainer, Horse Master with Julie Goodnight TV Host
I’m 15 and have been riding for 11 years. I just bought a Halflinger pony that stands at 14.2. He’s a pleasure to own but rests his head on the reins and often pulls. I would like to find out a way to get him lighter on the reins with lighter contact—but without him zooming off when I’m schooling him. I’ve tried lots of things. One trainer recommended that I put my rein and hand up on his neck then bring it back and repeat the process on the other side. This does reduce his resting on the reins a little but it also encourages him to take off in a fast trot. Then I have to pull on the reins and feel him pulling against me again. I don’t see any point of the exercise. Please help me!
Thank you for your time,
Tired of Pulling
Dear Tired of Pulling,
Whenever I get a horse with a training problem, the first thing I try to discover is what is the origin of the behavior? In other words, why is he doing this? Typically, horses that root the reins and throw their heads have learned to do that in response to tight, relentless and meaningless contact on the bit. Often horses are never taught how to respond properly to the reins to begin with and contact is totally confusing to them; more often, it is because the rider is unskilled and has uneducated hands. Usually fixing the cause is more effective than fixing the symptom (be wary of using artificial aids—like tie downs, martingales or draw reins– to fix bitting problems- they may only temporarily cover a symptom).
Most trained horses learn to lean and root on the reins from being ridden with too heavy or too static of contact. Some trainers think that riders should use heavy contact all the time, but most horses will not tolerate that. Until both horse and rider are skilled enough to ride with contact, it should not be used. For me, if I am training a horse that must work on contact, I prefer to keep the horse as light as possible, teaching him to give to light pressure and balance as little weight as possible in my hands. The first thing you should check whenever you have bitting problems is, “how am I contributing to this problem?”
He can only lean on you if you let him. Try this exercise: let a friend lean on your shoulder and notice that in order to hold her up, you will start leaning into her a little, balancing her weight. If you simply move away from her when she leans, she can’t lean on you and she will have to hold up her own weight. She can still place her hand on your shoulder to have a steady connection with you, she just can’t lean. When you feel your horse begin to lean, don’t contribute to the problem by holding him up; make him hold himself up. He should be able to trot slowly and steadily on a loose rein as well as on contact.
If he zooms away, immediately check and release, using your seat and hands in a rocking, repeated motion. Don’t pull continuously; that will only make him speed up. If your horse does not maintain a steady speed at every gait, you have some holes in your training and your horse is disobedient. See my website for more information on how to create an obedient horse, on static vs. dynamic pressure and how to use your seat to stop the horse. Learn to use the pulley rein if you need an emergency stop.
When he starts rooting on the reins, you should immediately stiffen and lock one hand on the rein so that he hits himself on one side of his mouth (it is much easier for him to lean and root on both reins than one). If every time he roots, he is successful in pulling reins out of your hand, he has gotten a reward. If every time he roots he hits a hard spot on one side of his mouth, he does not get a reward. Make sure he is rewarded with a lightening of contact when he is being a good boy.
Finally, make sure when you are riding that you have some feel and softness in your hands. I like to teach “giving” hands. That means they are always stretching toward the horse’s mouth and always offering more rein when the horse softens and carries himself. Your fingers must be soft and relaxed, not tense and gripping the reins; your elbows should be very supple to act as shock absorbers for your horse’s mouth.
One thing I would consider doing with this horse, is teach him to trot on a loose rein, as well as on-contact. I would put him in a trot and every time he speeds up without being asked, gently pick up ONE rein to put him into a tight turn; over-flexing his neck, bringing him to the right and then the left, alternating directions until you feel him slow down. As soon as he slows, go straight and find your way back to the rail. Rather than pulling back on two reins every time he speeds up, make him work harder when he speeds up so he learns that going fast is harder and that he will be rewarded with easier work when he slows down. Again, there is more info on my website on this subject.
By the way, your horse is bred to be a puller, and that certainly doesn’t help. Draft type horses (in your case, a draft pony) have short thick necks and heavy straight shoulders in order to pull heavy loads. Although I have certainly seen Haflingers that were light and responsive, they seem to naturally want to lean on you and drag you around from the ground. Although your horse definitely has this propensity, horses are a product of the handlers and riders that train them, for better or for worse. Hopefully you can take this information and make your horse better.
Enjoy the ride!
Julie Goodnight, Trainer and Clinician
Ask Julie Goodnight:
Why do horses relax and listen when I use one rein at a time?
Question: Dear Julie,
My riding instructor and I have a question regarding using one rein while riding. I’ve seen it mentioned in several different articles and books. John Lyons discusses using one rein when starting a young horse. My instructor learned the technique from Karen O’Connor. When we use it on any of our horses – lesson horses to upper level eventers, it seems to calm them and refocus their attention. Can you help explain the equine thought process here and why it seems to be so effective? Also, in what situations would you recommend using it and why?
Answer: Any horse will work better when the reins are used one at a time as opposed to using both reins at the same time. There are several reasons for this. First, when you pull on both reins at the same time, it causes a horse to clench his jaw, stiffen his neck and lean into the pressure. He ends up with a stiff and bracey neck that feels like it has two pieces of rod iron in it.
Secondly, using both reins at once puts you and your horse in a tug-of-war that he will always win because he out weighs you by so much.
We want our horses to stay soft in the jaw and loose in the neck (and body) and that will only happen when you use one rein at a time. The mechanics of the bit are such that when you pull on both reins at the same time, it creates pressure all over his mouth, tongue, jaw and palate; it is too much pressure and the horse’s only concern will be to get away from the pressure however he can– he quits thinking, which is not conducive to learning. You also lose any ability to be articulate with the rein aids or use the reins to influence certain parts of his body, because the pressure is every where and he cannot adjust to subtle rein cues.
Even in a hackamore, rope halter, side-pull, etc., you’ll get the same response if you pull on both reins at the same time. Horses tend to move into static pressure; try leaning on your horse and notice he shifts his weight and starts leaning back. Pulling with two reins simply gives the horse something to brace against and lean on. He cannot do that with one rein.
You’ll have much more control over the horse when his neck is slightly bent than when it is straight. It is when the horse stiffens his neck straight in front of him that we lose control. Using one rein to stop or using both reins alternately, like you do for collection is the ideal. Even when using both reins, you always want to keep a rhythm in the reins so that you are not giving the horse something to lean on.
There is a well-documented behavior that I think helps explain why horses are more responsive to one rein than two. When a horse eats or drinks (from the ground) he is very vulnerable because his vision is so poor at that point that he can only see the ground immediately around him. Therefore, when a horse eats or drinks (in the wild) he will eat a few bites, slowly lift his head, swing it to one side, go back down for another few bites, lift his head, slowly swing it to the other side. This is believed to be an instinctive behavior of horses that helps keep them safe from predators when their head would other wise be down in that vulnerable position. Therefore, it follows that if we can move a horse’s nose gently from side to side and keep his neck loose and relaxed, he stays soft and calm.
When a person pulls relentlessly on both reins in an attempt to bring the horse into control or to get him to come on the bit (something I see in every clinic that I do) it tends to lead to the horse getting more and more out of control and agitated until he begins to “run through the bridle” in an attempt to escape the confusing, painful and relentless pressure on his mouth. The more you pull back, the faster the horse goes (moving into pressure). It is hard for people to understand that they need to release the pressure before they can get the horse to stop or to be responsive at all. Check (with weight and reins) then release, then check, then release.
Using the one-rein stop, you’ll never have this problem, even if your release is not as good as it should be. By and large, the biggest problem that people have riding is not releasing the horse from bit pressure enough.
Finally, using the one rein stop will lead to a disengagement of the hindquarters (occurs when the horse crosses his hind legs) which will always cause the horse to calm down, focus on you and become more submissive.
To execute the one-rein stop, lift up on one rein toward your belly button or opposite shoulder, it causes the horse to disengage as he stops. As soon as you feel the horse’s back bend as his hip comes under you (it is a very distinctive feel) you release the rein entirely. With practice, a slight lift of one rein will cause the horse to stop easily. Use the disengagement any time you lose a horse’s attention or anytime he becomes nervous or fractious. We use the one rein stop on young horses or any horses that are very forward and/or resistant to pressure from the reins. It is really a general practice that you can use on any horse at any time.
–Julie Goodnight Trainer and Clinician
If you liked this article, Julie suggests the following products to help you continue the work with your horse (http://shop.juliegoodnight.com or call 800-225-8827 for ordering help):
The Goodnight’s Principles of Riding 5-Part DVD Series
Using The Goodnight Bitting System
The self-correcting bitting system I use is often called an elbow pull and it is a long harness leather cord with snaps on each end. To use the bitting tool, you place the middle of the cord over the horse’s poll and then run each end through the rings of the bit, between the horse’s legs and up to the saddle. Adjust it so that when the horse is standing square and relaxed, there is no pressure on the bit. The pressure will come as the horse walks or trots; his elbow will cause a pull on that side of his mouth.
It is a self-correcting tool– meaning that when the horse does the right thing (brings his nose down and in), the pressure goes away. It teaches the horse to drop his head, bring his nose in and round his back when he feels pressure on the bit. Since the horse is coming off of the bit pressure, he is required to hold himself in the frame rather than have something to lean against like with side reins. This requires the horse to bring his hind-end up underneath him and lift his back in order to hold himself in the frame while keeping slack in the reins.
I like this training tool much better than other bit-training techniques because it gives an alternating pull on the bit, not pulling on both sides of the bit at the same time, so it keeps the horse very soft and relaxed in the neck and jaw. Also, you can mimic the action of the bitting system from the saddle, by using alternating sponge squeezes in time with the horse’s front legs. Finally, I like this system because it teaches the horse to give to the slightest rein pressure and to seek out the slack in the rein.
I think is very important is to teach the horse to seek out the slack in the rein. From day one, I teach the horse that when he gives to the bit, he will find slack in the rein. Whether the horse is giving laterally (to the side) or vertically (bringing his nose into his chest) you should relax the reins as soon as the horse makes an effort. Again, this will reward the horse for his efforts (all any horse wants is less pressure on his mouth) and will teach him self-carriage.
I am not a big believer is holding a horse in a frame. I believe if you are light and responsive to your horse’s efforts, you can teach him to carry himself in whatever frame you ask of him. This may sound like a simple concept, but I have found that most riders have difficulty with the release. When a rider picks up the reins and asks the horse to give, most riders will continue to apply pressure to the reins even after the horse gives. I think this is in an effort to maintain direct contact, but it is typically done without feel. Therefore the horse gives in some small way but if he does not find a release, he does not know that he has done the right thing. The horse is searching for a way out of the pressure on his mouth. By and large, horses will gladly hold whatever frame you want if they know that in doing so, you will release the pressure on his mouth.
Again, the beauty of this system is threefold. One, the instant the horse gives the right way he gets slack. Two, the elbow-pull creates a rhythmic alternating pull, rather than a static pull on both reins (like side reins), and it is far more effective to use one rein at a time rather than two (a horse stiffens his neck and leans into it when you pull on both reins at the same time). And third, once the horse has learned to respond correctly and carry himself in a collected frame with no contact on his mouth, you can mimic this action on the reins when you are on his back.
This technique is explained thoroughly and demonstrated on my video, Bit Basics. You can also find out more about collection and many other riding skills in my Training Library, JulieGoodnight.com/Academy
I have a question regarding using one rein, versus two, while riding and stopping your horse. When I ride with two hands or use the one-rein stop on my horses, it seems to calm them and refocus their attention. Can you help explain why direct rein pressure seems to be so effective?
Any horse will work better when the reins are used one at a time or with alternating pressure as opposed to applying pressure to both reins at the same time. There are several reasons for this and all have to do with the horse’s comfort.
First, when you pull on both reins at the same time, it causes a horse to clench his jaw, stiffen his neck and lean into the pressure. It also puts constricting pressure on his tongue, making it impossible for him to swallow and gives him a choking sensation; this will cause him to lift his head and hollow in the neck and back.
Secondly, using both reins at once puts you and your horse in a tug-of-war with you that he will always win because he out weighs you by so much. In a sense, it gives the horse something to lean on or brace against.
We want our horses to stay soft in the jaw and relaxed in the neck with his topline slightly rounded. That will only happen when you use one rein at a time. The mechanics of the bit are such that when you pull on both reins at the same time, it creates pressure all over his mouth, jaw and palate; clamping his tongue down.
It is too much pressure and the horse’s only concern will be to get away from the pressure however he can. You also lose any ability to be articulate with the rein aids and use the reins to influence certain parts of his body, because the pressure is everywhere and is relentless.
Even in a hackamore, rope halter, side-pull, etc., you’ll get the same response if you pull on both reins at the same time and statically. It simply gives the horse something to brace against and lean on. He cannot lean one rein because it focalizes the pressure and keeps his neck bent instead of poking out straight.
You’ll always have more control over the horse when his neck is slightly bent than when it is straight. It is when the horse stiffens his neck straight in front of him with his jaw clenched that we lose control.
Using one rein to stop or using both reins alternately for collection is the ideal. Even when using both reins, you always want to keep a rhythm in the reins so that you are not pulling on both reins at the same time—this rhythm should match the movement of the horse’s hind legs.
There is a well-documented behavior that I think helps explain why horses are more responsive to one rein than two. When a horse eats or drinks (from the ground) he is very vulnerable because his vision is so poor at that point that he can only see the ground immediately around him. Therefore, when a horse eats or drinks (in the wild) he will eat a few bites, slowly lift his head, swing it to one side, go back down for another few bites, lift his head, slowly swing it to the other side. It is theorized that this is an instinctive behavior of horses that helps keep them safe from predators when their head would other wise be down in that vulnerable position. Therefore, if we can move a horse’s nose from side to side and keep his neck loose and relaxed, he stays soft and calm.
When a person pulls relentlessly on both reins in an attempt to bring the horse into control or to get him to come on the bit (something I see everywhere I go) it tends to lead to the horse getting more and more out of control and agitated until he begins to “run through the bridle” in an attempt to escape the confusing, painful and relentless pressure on his mouth. The more you pull back, the faster the horse goes.
It is hard for people to grasp that they need to release the pressure before they can get the horse to stop or be responsive at all. Using the one-rein stop, you’ll never have this problem, even if your release is not as good as it should be. By and large, the biggest problem that people have riding is not releasing the horse from bit pressure enough.
Finally, using the one rein stop will lead to a disengagement of the hindquarters (disengagement occurs when the horse crosses his hind legs) which will always cause the horse to calm down, focus on you and accept your authority. Again, this is a natural behavior of horses but one that is only seen in neo-natal foals (foals under one month of age). If the mother disciplines the foal, he will sometimes drop his head and cross his hind legs in contrition.
When a horse crosses his hind legs it takes away his flight response, leaving him in a more cooperative mood. When you lift up one rein toward your belly button or opposite shoulder, it causes the horse to disengage as he stops. As soon as you feel the horse’s back bend as his hip comes under you (it is a very distinctive feel) you release the rein entirely. With practice, a slight lift of one rein will cause the horse to stop.
We use disengagement any time we lose a horse’s attention or anytime he becomes nervous or fractious—from the ground or from the saddle. We use the one rein stop on young horses or any horses that are very forward and/or resistant to pressure from the reins. The finished horses stop off your seat, without any rein pressure at all. Disengagement and the one-rein stop are generally techniques that you can use on any horse at any time.
Riding Right with Julie Goodnight
Emergency! The rein aids that keep you safe
I’ve been taking riding lessons every week for a few months (I used to ride when I was younger). The school I go to is very good—your horses are very fit and mostly well behaved. My class of 4-5 riders is working in an arena. In the last few weeks, I’ve noticed that the horses are getting a bit excitable and fast. I can control my horse at the beginning, but when it comes to cantering my horse is difficult to control. He raises his neck and is ready to take off—especially when other horses are excited. I am reluctant to canter at all now. I feel nervous and out of control and my horse knows it. What’s the best way control my horse at the canter?
Signed, Speed No More
Dear Speed No More,
Feeling out of control is no fun. I believe it’s important to give all riders the tools they need to feel in control and capable of stopping at any speed. I teach riders two get-in-control and stopping techniques–one for everyday use and one that’s purely for emergencies. Let’s learn about the one-rein stop and the pulley rein. You’ll need to know both—and when it’s time to use each.
Let’s first make sure you know what to do in an all-out emergency. The pulley rein is the emergency stop to use. It’s a rather abrupt motion that will stop any horse (when done correctly). When you apply this rein aid, you’ll apply a significant amount of leverage to your horse’s mouth. I don’t want riders to pull on their horses’ mouths often—that’s why this cue is used only in an emergency. To make sure the cue isn’t abused, I usually only teach the technique at jumping clinics (when riders are on open courses where horses often get strong and can easily run off) and at fear-management clinics (when you need the confidence to know you can stop—come Hell or high water).
Executing the Pulley Rein
As you practice this move, keep in mind you’ll only use your ultimate strength when there’s an actual emergency. In practice, you’ll only use a portion of your available strength. Begin by shortening one rein (let’s choose the left for teaching purposes) so there’s tight contact with your horse’s mouth. Keeping the rein pulled tightly, center and brace your left hand on your horse’s neck, at your horse’s midline. Push your knuckles—still working with your left hand–into your horse’s neck. With your right hand, slide your fingers down the right rein, grasp and pull straight back and up. In a real emergency, you’ll use all your weight to create leverage. Your left rein is locked in place, preventing your horse’s head from turning. The pull on the second rein creates significant pressure and to avoid the constant pressure, your horse will choose to stop.
When executed correctly, you can stop a runaway horse on a dime by using the pulley rein. This is far preferable to pulling the out-of-control horse into a circle–which may cause him to lose his footing and fall down. The pulley rein technique requires some practice. It can also be very useful for slowing down a big, strong horse—use a little of the pulley action every few strides then release (similar to a half-halt).
One of the very worst things you can do, when trying to slow down or stop a horse, is pull back on both reins at the same time. This will almost always make your horse stiffen its neck and lock its jaw and may also pull you up and out of the saddle–or even right over your horse’s ears. Pulling on both reins continuously will often cause your horse to “run through the bridle,” and the harder you pull the faster he goes. Horses are much more responsive when you use the reins alternately. Alternate action is far more likely to keep your horse soft in the neck and flexing in the poll.
When to One-Rein
The other technique I teach for better control is a one-rein stop—also known as disengagement of the hindquarters. You must train your horse (while working at a walk then a trot) to know what response you’re requesting before using this move at high speeds or when he seems out of control. To execute the one-rein stop, pick up one rein and lift it up toward your belly button or toward your opposite shoulder (it’s an upward, diagonal pull on the rein). It’s critical that the other rein is completely loose.
This rein aid will turn your horse’s nose up and toward you; as he arcs throughout the length of his body, the turn will cause him to disengage, or cross his hind legs. You’ll be able to feel your horse’s hips bend as he begins to disengage his hindquarters.
Disengagement will help you control your horse in two ways: speed and subordinance. When your horse crosses his hind legs in disengagement, it ceases all forward motion. As you pick up slowly on the one rein, wait until you feel your horse’s back and hip get crooked (that’s when he’s crossing his hind legs) then release the rein suddenly and completely and he should stop. If not, just reapply the aid but be sure to release as soon as you feel your horse even begin to slow down. Since crossing the hind legs takes away your horse’s ability for forward motion (or flight), it puts him in a frame of mind to have to be submissive. Fleeing is not an option.
A few more tips about the one-rein stop: Make sure to lift your rein slowly and steadily and be ready for an instantaneous release when you feel your horse’s momentum affected. You should alternate between the right and left reins, or the inside and outside rein, so you’re not affecting just one side of your horse or getting him into a habit. The one-rein stop will cause your horse to turn at first, but with practice and a timely release, he’ll go straight and stop. Practice the one-rein stop at walk and trot until your horse stops when you just begin to lift one hand–before much pressure is actually applied to his mouth.
Of course, you should be using your seat aid as well; for more information on how to use your aids effectively, see the article on “Gears of the Seat” on www.juliegoodnight.com and check out volume two in my riding series, Communication and Control from the Saddle.
Enjoy the ride!
Julie Goodnight, Trainer and Clinician